Are you using stories visually? If so – or if not – check out the Visual Story Network to discover the power of visual stories.
Which brings us to visual research. When the output is visual, it helps if the input is, too. Rather than using words to tell a designer what her work should look like, visual research shows the concepts and elements that can be easily adapted into visual communication.
There is a lot of psychological theory underlying representative aspects of visual design. While it helps to know why something works, sometimes it is sufficient just to produce something that works.
Some forms of visual research are highly sophisticated; others are accessible and usable for almost anyone. For an example of the latter, check out Visual Explorer.
Some simple, informal visual research – nearly a decade old – turned out to be influential in the design of the current GMI logo. As you read the story, think about ways that you could apply visual research.
For many years, GMI used this logo:
To some, it said, “We aspire to be the IBM of the mission world.” To me, it said, “The world as obscured by a Venetian blind.”
We sometimes paired it with the tagline “Helping the Church See.” I guess the logo could represent our helping the Church to see God’s world by opening the Venetian blinds of ignorance. But no one wants to be told he or she is ignorant. And GMI’s technical skills go well beyond adjusting window treatments. Why not take the blinds down completely, open the window and climb through?
In 2010, after at least a decade of talking about it, GMI finally took the initiative to rebrand.
There’s a tangential story that I’ll mostly skip over about the debate over a potential name change to something other than Global Mapping International. In the end, GMI opted to emphasize its well-known acronym, paired with the tagline: Strategic mission research and mapping.
We had done some simple research on the GMI brand back in 2003. The first step was interviewing staff to get their input on the personality characteristics of GMI. In words. Some wanted to talk about what GMI did, but we fought to stay focused on who GMI was in terms of personality and values. It would have been good to include some of our resource users and other stakeholders as well, but we were less interested at that point in external image and more interested in internal identity.
Eventually, nine themes emerged that were mentioned frequently through the use of related words:
We revisited this list during the design process, using a simple online survey with the board and staff to prioritize the characteristics – that prioritized the characteristics in the order listed above.
But the input was still purely verbal. The designer took the old logo and the personality elements, then went to work on a new concept, seeking to retain a connection to elements of the old logo. Here was the first draft I saw:
I liked the way that a data/technology element was incorporated, but I felt that the image offered little warmth and a bulky font. It communicated “trustworthy” perhaps, but definitely not “accessible,” “adaptable,” or “compassionate.”
I was one of many who were given an opportunity to offer feedback on the design. In addition to the comment above, I mentioned a piece of visual research that we had done in early 2003 to follow up on the personality characteristics that we had identified.
Our visual exercise involved a few hundred logos, some from ministries and some from commercial organizations, printed and strewn across a conference room table. Staff members were asked to select logos that captured each of the personality characteristics identified in the interviews. I analyzed the selected logos both by characteristic and as a group, looking for patterns or trends that might help to capture the full set of personality traits.
Visual elements that popped up frequently included silhouettes, question marks and a particular combination of colors.
I wrote to the design team:
When we did our visual tests way back when, the colors most often paired with blue were gold and black. Would like to see a treatment that incorporates those – perhaps using them in the map border and in a scattering of the data ovals.
Unfortunately, I was living overseas and did not have a copy of the research “report” with the visual input to show the designer what I was talking about. The document was only three or four pages — a few paragraphs of analysis interspersed with selected images taped onto the paper. It existed only in hard copy; I never got around to scanning it.
With input from many people, the designer had to choose which ideas to incorporate. The second attempt seemed to be a step back:
In my response, besides noting that issue, I asked the design team to locate the 2003 visual research report and try at least one design using the blue, black and gold combination. I also wrote:
I would also like to see us at least consider rendering the GMI in lowercase in the main logo.
This was also supported by the visual research. I mentioned three reasons for trying lowercase:
- To help communicate Adaptable and Accessible – hopefully not at the exense of Trustworthy and Supportive. After all, if Intel and AT&T can use lowercase text in their logos…;
- To reflect a sense of servanthood and credit-sharing that has been a hallmark of GMI’s work in partnership with others; and
- To create room to give a nod to Innovation and Stimulation by stylizing or coloring the dot in the “i.”
The next version revealed that the designer was listening:
Now I thought we were getting somewhere. In his email delivering the artwork, the designer mentioned reviewing the visual research (and admitted that he chose to substitute gray for black — which makes sense for high-tech applications).
This concept received positive feedback from almost everyone, so the process moved to refinement. Several options and variations were considered, along with various color combinations. As it turned out, the winning logo was indeed a combination of blue, black and gold.
Why those colors? The standard color psychology interpretation holds that blue provides trust and dependability, black reflects strength and authority (plus clarity on a white background), and gold implies wisdom, along with generosity of time and spirit. Deep blue and gold are also complementary colors on the color wheel.
I also felt that the logo represents a simple story about GMI does and why: GMI brings forth insights from information to support others in bringing the light of the Gospel to a dark world.
To go further, GMI produces and is engaged with data, organizing and interpreting it to draw out points of insight. The data is drawn from and often describes the world. The insight helps advance the work of revealing God’s light to the world. Our work is supportive, so lowercase “gmi” is at the bottom.
I didn’t expect to get a logo that told a story, but I think the power of telling that story will be meaningful in communicating GMI’s work.
The logo may seem a bit busy, but then, so are we – so even its weakness fits.
Sometimes research projects have little impact on decision making for various reasons – changing conditions, political or financial considerations, a leader’s preference, or something else. But in this instance, a simple visual research project spoke into the project in meaningful ways. (It was much later when I noticed that the continents in world map appear in silhouette, another theme from the research.)
Think about ways that you may be able to gather image-based information for your visual projects.